READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

My struggle was hardly unique. Other women confirm behaviors which testify to the depth of the hunger for mother-love when it is withheld or absent. As denizens of a culture dominated by the mother myths, the child within each and everyone of us longs for that perfect mother, the one who is always available, understanding, supportive. But the securely attached daughter of a loving mother can regain her foothold after her mother's occasional misstep; the insecurely attached daughter can't. Ambivalence reigns supreme. Mixed in with the anger and the hurt is, almost always, a measure of hopefulness that her mother will become the mother she longs for and needs.

The journey of the daughter of a mean or unloving mother is different in kind from those of daughters who, from the very beginning, have understood and grown from their connection to their mothers. The influence of any mother on her daughter during the formative years of childhood through early adulthood can hardly be overstated, and perhaps the influence of the unloving mother is an even more powerfully destructive force than that of a loving mother is a constructive one.

The mother's relationship to her daughter not only forms the earliest, if not the primary, foundation for how the daughter formulates her sense of self but is the basic template for her understanding of how relationships work in the world. In this sense, each individual's definition of love and emotional connection is learned during infancy and childhood. Adaptive behavior learned in childhood – dealing with an emotionally unreliable mother, for example – will absolutely carry over into adulthood without intervention, either in the form of therapy or some other relationship which offers a daughter (or a son) "earned" security or another way of connecting. As we've already seen, for many daughters, this will lead them to seek out relationships with other partners that actually echo the maternal one. Aside from relationship, the question that looms largest is:

"Can I mother differently than my own mother?" Nearly all daughters I interviewed the choice of whether or not to have children with caution, if not real hesitation.

If, as Hope Edelman has so eloquently observed, daughters who lose their mothers early in their lives, may experience a new upsurge of grief when they become mothers and may have difficulty mothering without a maternal guide, then daughters of mean mothers face a task which, in some ways, is even more difficult. If motherless daughters face the task of mothering without a map, then the daughters of mean mothers are both motherless and mother-burdened at once. They must consciously discard the maternal model as well as the behaviors they learned and internalized in their childhoods. They must learn how to mother from scratch. And only some of them will fully succeed.

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